Prolific author and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, David McCullough, has issued another historical masterpiece. Highly readable and suitable for all ages and audiences, The Pioneers recounts the daring late-eighteenth century settling of the Northwest Territory, ceded by Britain to the United States following the War of Independence.
To be certain, this is not the territory explored by Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark during their celebrated 1804-1806 military expedition through the Louisiana Purchase into the Pacific Northwest. Rather, McCullough tells the story of some fifteen years earlier when Ohio was the western frontier, evoking the largely forgotten names of Manasseh Culter and General Rufus Putnam, who now reemerge from obscurity to the notoriety and reverence for which the great figures of our past have been duly monumentalized.
McCullough found national acclaim with his first notable publication The Jamestown Flood (1968), only to follow with benchmark-setting biographies on Theodore Roosevelt, President Truman, and John Adams. His historical renditions were perfected in The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal (1977), 1776 (2005), and The Wright Brothers (2015). Altogether, his decades of refined biographical research and factual story-telling reach their apogee in The Pioneers, typifying a compositional style that makes reading such history not only a source of information and pleasure, but enlarges the experience of being transported to the times and places narrated in order to underscore the civic responsibility we have to remember and perpetuate the ideals of these noble Americans.
And that is the point of McCullough’s writing, namely to understand that the ideals of the pioneers—mostly Revolutionary war veterans—ought not to be any different from those we extol today if we, too, desire an America as bold, virtuous, and full of hope as theirs. McCullough avers,
… the foremost pioneers of Marietta [Ohio] had finished their work, each in his or her own way, and no matter the adversities to be faced, propelled as they were by high, worthy purpose. They accomplished what they set out to do not for money, not for possessions or fame, but to advance the quality and opportunities of life—to propel as best they could the American ideals. [p.258]
It took a Herculean effort to settle, first, Marietta, Ohio, and the surrounding region that included what is today Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan—a landmass as large as France. But it was not done by the likes of Hercules. Rather, it was initiated by a chaplain in the Continental Army—the Reverend Manasseh Cutler. His vision, resourcefulness, and extraordinary diplomacy persuaded the US Congress to issue forth a contract “of unprecedented magnitude, exceeding any private contract ever made in the United States” (27). Cutler regarded his business with Congress as “a duty”, indeed, a sacred duty not to himself, but to America and his generation’s posterity. He sought an ordinance that created the machinery for government that provided for new states meant to be of perpetual obligation. Within it were articles so ambitious that, at the time, only the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence compared with respect to the assertion of individual rights. Indeed, the first article of the contract asserted the freedom of religion and further stated in the third article “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” More ambitious still was the fourth article’s codification: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” These were the pioneers that engineered a country based on transcendent principles found in their Scriptures, emanated from natural law, and re-emanated from within their consciences.
McCullough is guided by his characters’ own stories, using their preserved letters, diaries, documents, in addition to contemporary published accounts. Each comes alive and their voices are heard afresh through his profile accounting. The pioneers are thus self-presented as a people whose values manifested the values of the newly founded nation. They were a people of purpose within a country that had a purpose. They were about quality, not quantity, and (so McCullough shows us), this required grit, faith, and sacrifice by every man, woman and child: “Everyone worked, including children. It had to be so for survival” (73). Conspicuous by its absence was loafing: “loafing of almost any kind was as yet unknown.” In an age of “softness” and “snowflakes”, this stirring reminder of what our forebears endured and achieved so that we, too, might advance the quality and opportunities of life could hardly be more timely and, yet, contrasted by our own age of conspicuous consumerism and radical sense of entitlement. One reads about the centrality of faith and family on every page and wonders, where is grit, faith, and sacrifice to be found today and can the American experience survive without it as a common virtue?
The author weaves his longitudinal account of Marietta through a compositional device reminiscent of James Michener’s Hawaii (1959) and Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum (1987), focusing on a set of families—the Cutlers and Putnams—and tracking their multi-generational involvement in the settlement enterprise. This enterprise included harrowing accounts of kidnapping, warfare, famine, and deadly weather but no less the challenges and hardships that come with literally clearing the land and building from ground up without existing infrastructure – everything was handmade and required patience. To be sure, McCullough’s history drifts away from Marietta when retelling, especially, numerous hair-raising conflicts with the Native Americans (climaxing at the Battle of Fallen Timbers), only to return to Marietta by the end of each chapter.
Certain readers may sound a note of disappointment concerning the scope of the book. In the opening pages, McCullough hints that the story may stretch into Illinois and Indiana, perhaps Michigan or Wisconsin, but it does not. Instead, the focus is on the North Bank of the Ohio River and remains there. For it is these characters associated with Marietta in particular, characters frequently described as “patriotic”, “high-minded”, and full of “spirit” (characters so hardy that one spent the better part of year living in a hollowed-out tree trunk until he had completed a permanent domicile) that yielded the legacy of freedom, but no less so grit, faith, and sacrifice as the American ideal that was later carried into those other states. It was about these characters that George Washington said: “The settlement of Southeastern Ohio was not accidental, but the result of the careful deliberation of wise, prudent, and patriotic men” and (we might add) not a few women. The Pioneers deserves to be read by every American and would-be American who prizes those virtues on which this nation was founded and desires to see them manifest now and in perpetuity.
John Bombaro (Ph.D.) is a Programs Manager at the USMC Headquarters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.